The last two years have taken a toll on our nation's social and emotional well-being. We continue to hear about the psychological consequences of two national tragedies and the wake of challenges that followed. One is the pandemic. The other is, collectively, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery; this tragedy rallied cities and towns across the country, forcing the United States to confront the racism of its past and present. We know that young people, in particular, have been hard hit by the impacts of these events and will continue to suffer long-term consequences. They lost school time and had limited social interactions with peers when they needed them most. Those living in low-income communities of color have been especially affected. They lost more friends and family members due to COVID-19’s impact, yet had comparably less access to services and resources. On top of this, one-third of the nation grappled with feelings of anger, loss, and despair following George Floyd’s murder. This rises to nearly half in Black communities (De Witte, 2021), who had higher increases in depression and anxiety following his murder (Eichstaedt et al., 2021).

To better understand the impact of these events on the social and emotional well-being of young people, we examined data from youth-serving organizations that used the Hello Insight platform to capture pre/post survey data before and during the pandemic. Sports-based youth development (SBYD) programs are the largest group of organizations that fit these criteria, likely because many were able to remain open outdoors or pivot quickly to an online environment. The organizations in this study operate in communities hardest hit by the pandemic’s impacts and ongoing and systemic racism.


This study includes 16 SBYD organizations that delivered 52 programs throughout the pandemic. We created two groups for comparison from their data. One group is made up of data from young people who completed the Hello Insight: Sports survey between April 1, 2019 and April 7, 2020—pre-pandemic. The other group contains data from young people who completed the HI Sports survey between April 7, 2020 and April 7, 2021; while we don’t want to diminish all of the impacts of this time, we will refer to the timespan as pandemic for the sake of simplicity.

We based the start date for the pandemic group on the start date of the last lockdown in the United States (April 7, 2020, in South Carolina). We realize that not all states went into a strict lockdown at this time. However, we felt that this date is a good approximation of when young people and their families began to face serious challenges. The start date also is close to an incendiary moment of intense sadness, anxiety, and anger ignited by the murder of George Floyd ( May 25, 2020). Organizations pivoted strategies to address racial justice and the growing needs of their communities around this time.


Sustaining Young People’s SEL Development

During the pandemic, the 16 organizations were able to significantly increase young people’s SEL. This growth is very similar to pre-pandemic patterns, illustrating that these organizations continued to deliver high-quality programming regardless of the innumerable challenges staff and coaches faced. They worked tirelessly to meet young people where they were, providing tailored experiences (both online and in person) to address the moment.

Delivering Key Elements Of SBYD

These SBYD organizations  ensured three of the seven key research-based experiences shown to promote SEL occurred during the pandemic at the same level of quality as they were pre-pandemic.  

Coaches engaged authentically,  taking even more time to get to know them and their families. They listened to their experiences and reactions to current events. And they supported them to navigate challenges as they arose.

Whether online or in person, they built teams. Setting the tone, coaches  treated each player equally, ensured all athletes knew their own and each others’ roles and responsibilities, and created collective missions and identities. They also challenged young people to take positive risks and perform beyond their own expectations.

Struggling To Deliver Other Elements Of SBYD

Four research-based experiences—Promote Peer Bonds, Expand Interests, Manage Goals, and Share Power—proved more difficult to realize during these challenging times. Coaches provided fewer of these experiences than they had pre-pandemic.

Experience Definition
ENGAGE AUTHENTICALLY A young person’s experience with an adult who takes the time to get to know them by listening and understanding who they are — their cultural and lived experiences, their interests, and their passions
PROMOTE PEER BONDS A young person’s experience with an adult who helps them work with peers in teams and groups, creating a safe space to learn with and from one another, exploring similarities and differences, and developing deep bonds and relationships
BUILD TEAM A young person’s experience with a coach who leverages every team member's talents, creating a “win” for all
CHALLENGE GROWTH A young person’s experience with an adult who encourages them to take risks and perform beyond their own expectations
EXPAND INTERESTS A young person’s experience with an adult who supports them to try new things, broaden their horizons, learn about other people’s cultures and perspectives, and explore their own identities
MANAGE GOALS A young person’s experience with an adult who assists them to set and manage goals that are important to them and that build upon their passions and interests
SHARE POWER A young person’s experience with an adult who ensures that their voices and opinions matter

Focusing On What Matters Most

Challenging growth actually became a negative influence on SEL development during the pandemic. Challenging a young person to growth and develop has always been a positive predictor of SEL growth in the Hello Insight model. This experience is especially important for young men. Yet, during the pandemic, the more that coaches challenged young people, the less SEL they developed.

Unlike Challenge Growth, which young people experienced with negative SEL impact, Promote Peer Bonds was especially critical for SEL growth, even though it was difficult to nurture during the pandemic. Still, a few SBYD organizations in this study that were strongest at supporting SEL development doubled down on this experience. In fact, Promote Peer Bonds is the most predictive experience for promoting SEL during this time This is a significant shift from pre-pandemic data models, where Engage Authentically is the most predictive experience.

Practice Detail
Carve out time in your day to learn about and listen to young people Young people need to feel they are heard and understood. Use informal moments before or after your program to check in with young people one-on-one or in small groups. Practice active listening by paying close attention and asking follow-up questions to better understand young people’s experiences and perspectives.
When young people share thoughts and opinions, let them know how much you value their ideas. Solicit ongoing feedback from young people about their program experience — don’t just ask how it was at the end. Respond with respect, seriousness, and validation. Follow through, being sure to address young people’s ideas directly, by acting on and implementing suggestions.
Take the time to really understand young people and their lives outside the program. Create a safe space for young people to share their stories and develop projects that value and build upon their lived experiences.
Help young people feel safe and supported by consistently and purposefully applying their recommendations. Consistent behavior is one of the ways trust is built. Regularly use active listening and validation in your interactions with young people. Consistency in communication and investment in intentional interactions shows young people that you can be dependable.

Concluding Thoughts

This is an exceptional group of organizations that were able to weather the storm in the face of tremendous difficulties and meet the needs of low-income young people of color disproportionately affected by both issues. It is not surprising that

Promoting Peer Bonds was especially crucial during this timeframe, as. approximately one-quarter of students in the United States felt disconnected from their school communities, school adults, and classmates, according to America’s Promise Alliance’s study of the pandemic’s effects (Margolius et al., 2020). Peer bonding opportunities supported these much-needed social connections and really accelerated student growth.

In addition, it is interesting that Challenging Growth became a negative predictor of SEL growth. Young Black and LatinX students in the SBYD organizations' neighborhoods were already dealing with the prevalence of chronic stress. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that any additional challenge may trigger even greater stress and anxiety. These extraordinary SBYD coaches understood this all too well and tailored their practices to meet the needs of the moment.

All organizations are highlighted in our post  2021 HI Impact BIPOC SBYD Awardees. Laureus Virtual Training Camp will highlight two others, Girls On The Run Atlanta and Grow Our Game Brooklyn, October 2022.


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De Witte, M. (2021, Sept. 20). Anger and sadness soared following George Floyd’s death, particularly among Black Americans, Stanford psychologists find. Stanford News.

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